Appointment-only COVID-19 test site opens in Montco at Temple Ambler campus

Residents were required to register online for free COVID-19 testing at Temple University's Ambler Campus in Montgomery County, which began this weekend. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Residents were required to register online for free COVID-19 testing at Temple University's Ambler Campus in Montgomery County, which began this weekend. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Two weeks to the day since Montgomery County saw its first cases of COVID-19, a free drive-through testing site opened Saturday morning on the Temple University Ambler campus. It was the first day of public testing, with appointments required.

On Friday, dozens of people pre-identified by the Montgomery County Office of Public Health, including first responders and health care workers, were tested at the campus in Upper Dublin Township.

Traffic was slow Saturday morning and early afternoon at the free COVID-19 testing site in Montgomery County. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Montgomery County has reported 77 confirmed cases as of Saturday afternoon — the second highest in Pennsylvania after Philadelphia, which now has 85 confirmed cases. Nine new Montco cases were announced Saturday. Four of those people infected by the coronavirus are currently hospitalized.

Unlike the City of Philadelphia site that opened to the public Friday at Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia, the Temple Ambler testing site required advance registration. Sign-ups began Friday at 5 p.m., and as of Saturday afternoon, 540 people had registered for tests, which will be given every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., as testing supplies allow. On registration, individuals were given specific times and dates for testing.

You do not have to be a Montgomery County resident to be tested at the Temple Ambler site. But because of limited testing capacity, only individuals who meet one or more of the following criteria will be eligible:

  • Fever at or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit with respiratory symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath.
  • Temperature at or above 99.6 degrees Fahrenheit and 65 years of age or older.
  • A first responder (law enforcement, fire, emergency medical service, or dispatcher) who is concerned about exposure to a patient with suspected COVID-19 or respiratory symptoms.
  • A health care worker providing direct patient care for whom testing is not available through an employer and who is concerned about exposure to a patient with suspected COVID-19 or respiratory symptoms.

If you fit one of these criteria, you can register online here. If you or someone you know wants to register but does not have internet access or an email, call the county’s COVID-19 hotline at 610-631-3000 for over-the-phone sign-up.

On Saturday morning and into the afternoon, the campus testing site — already quiet now that university instruction across the country has gone virtual — saw little to no wait for most people arriving in their cars. A few other vehicles stopped by the entrance to donate face masks, which Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Valerie Arkoosh requested earlier this week as local hospitals’ supplies decreased.

Jeffrey Dunbar, an internal-medicine physician at a federally funded health clinic in Philadelphia, drove to the Ambler campus for his noon appointment. He was shocked by how quickly he was able to get tested.

“I don’t know if this had something to do with that I had an appointment, but I was the only person there,” said Dunbar, who lives in Cheltenham Township. “Now, considering that people have appointments, I would have thought that there would have been a line of some kind. There were no cars behind me, and there were no cars ahead of me when I arrived. I was surprised.”

Dr. Jeffrey Dunbar, a physician and Montgomery County resident, expressed the importance of proper protocol and extensive testing after being tested himself at the drive-thru center. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Dunbar was eligible for a test because he’s a health care worker who had limited ability to get tested through his office. He said that recently his practice is seeing more and more patients come in with “a great deal of fear and anxiety” regarding their potential exposure to coronavirus. He signed up for his appointment at about 8:15 p.m. Friday.

As of Friday, Dunbar’s clinic had tested 12 patients, with no positive test results so far. Dunbar himself has yet to show symptoms, but he said he wanted to be tested to help settle his concerns and those of his immediate family.

How the drive-through testing works

Local public health officials and police were on-site to guide residents through the screening and testing process. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

After entering the campus, Dunbar said, you hit the first station, where the test site workers confirm you have an appointment, and confirm your address and points of contact.

At the next station, you’re met with a team of health care workers dressed head to toe in medical gowns, including a head mask, or “an astronaut suit,” as Dunbar described it.

A health care worker will then ask you to roll down your window and perform a nasopharyngeal swab — a thin wire with a swab on the end placed into one of your nostrils, up to your sinuses.

“Pretty much to the point where it can trigger a sneeze or reflex,” Dunbar said. “Annoying, but not painful.”

Drive-thru testing for COVID-19 took place in medical tents on Temple University’s Ambler Campus in Montgomery County. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

He said the health care workers told him the test results can take a standard three to five days, but at this point to expect longer. During a Friday press conference, Arkoosh said they’re estimating results to come in four to six days.

“Some of it is not in their hands,” Arkoosh said. “Because this testing site is being set up with the assistance of our federal partners, we do not have full control over how those results are going to be coming back to us.”

She added that the county is working closely with the state Department of Health and other officials to try to streamline the test-results process.

Dunbar said the processing time was similar for many of his patients. Due to the sheer volume of testing going on, the average results from Pennsylvania commercial labs would come back in a week, he said.

On a personal level, Dunbar said that as a physician, he has a pretty good grasp on understanding coronavirus, but that doesn’t necessarily reduce the concern or fear of contracting the virus.

“I may not necessarily have as much anxiety as any other people because of my profession, but I have to take into account though that I am surrounded by people who don’t have that medical background, including my family,” said Dunbar, who lives at home with his wife and 15-year-old son.

For now, he said, they are taking steps inside their house to do social distancing, including wearing masks. Dunbar said he found a set of N-95 masks that were bought last year while he was cleaning out his garage. Amid mask shortages and price gouging, a package of 20 N-95 masks can be found on Amazon for more than $40. 

Dunbar said his family is also contemplating setting up a space in their basement for him to stay indefinitely if there is a positive test result.

“Each day I go to work, there is the potential for me to bring home something,” Dunbar said, “and therefore I take this one day at a time, as though this could be the day I get exposed.”

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